Monday, February 15, 2010

Picking dandelions, & what is a weed, anyway?

© 2010 Joshua Stark

There is a small patch of green things growing wild on my walk to work from the parking lot. Nobody has bothered it, and it has grown up fairly tall. In this nice, verdant fieldlet, I've ID'ed dandelions, wild oats and radishes, and mallow, and it's been nice watching them all reaching up, up. I'd guess the dandelion leaves are about 18 inches long, and I've watched them from tiny sprouts.
So it was nice to find a lady picking those dandelion leaves the other day, on my way home from work. She'd kicked out her kickstand, stooped down, and was pulling the leaves as I walked up, and I asked her, "picking dandelion leaves?", but with a knowing smile, and when she looked up, she knew I knew, too. She smiled.

"Yeah! My grandfather, from Italy, raised us on dandelion greens. I see people call these weeds all the time, and spray malathion and diazanone to kill them. And then they wonder why they are so fat! They should get off their butts, bike some and pick things that are good for them to eat!"

She introduced herself, and we talked a bit about how great green things are, and we went on our ways.

It's so nice to meet other folks who notice little places on the edge, who realize what treasures they hold.

In this light, then, it was unfortunate to read just how lightly the Sacramento News & Review took the notion of weeds a couple weeks back, only mentioning the coming war with weeds that the Ag. Department plans to pursue.

But they didn't answer the basic question: What is a weed? The best definition I've found is that a weed is a plant growing where it doesn't belong. That is an important, and deeper concept than it sounds, because it goes to the definition of belonging.

I've found more space in my heart for what others would call weeds, and non-natives in general, because I had to do some thinking about it during a previous profession. As a park interpreter at Seacliff State Beach outside of Santa Cruz, I heard about a number of folks fighting over these very issues. The two that stand out in my head are the feral cat problem on the Monterey Bay, and the fight over eucalyptus trees. Both species are non-native, and both do have impacts on the ecosystem.

In the case of feral cats, they eat wild birds and small reptiles and mammals. They also (through oocysts in their poop) help to kill sea otters. In the case of eucalyptus, they, at times, may shade out lower-canopy, native habitats, but they also provide winter habitat for native monarch butterflies and hummingbirds, because they flower in the winter.

Through these controversies, I developed a general paradigm for determining whether a non-native should stay or go. Basically, I do a simple cost-benefit analysis from the point of view of habitat, considering the habitat's current state: Does the non-natives provide any benefit to the habitat? Does it possibly take the place of or augment existing habitat? Does it crowd out or create "dead zones" for other species? &etc. I also ask whether the impacts in removing them will be more damaging than their presence. I determined, in Santa Cruz, that the cats have to go, and the eucalyptus can stay. However, my positions can always change, as new evidence comes to light.

In the case of many species of non-native 'weeds', I think we should let them stay. The impacts to removing them from many roadsides and vacant lots may be more harmful than keeping them, especially considering the skimpy funding that cities and counties provide for these endeavors. There are particular species that need to be removed (I'm thinking star thistle), but for the most part, it would be preferable to encourage communities to recognize the value of plants like chicory and dandelion, and encourage controlled picking instead of pesticide regimes.

Weeds, like most everything else, don't take well to being generalized. So next time you are outside, looking over your lawn or patch of earth, notice these little plants, take some time to learn about them, and maybe eat one or two. You may start down a strange road, but it may be for the better. And, you just might meet me next to an Italian lady, picking dandelions.

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